When explicating a poem, a reader must read it several times. In the first reading, the poem is read for overall meaning, for the sound of the poem. After the reader figures out who the speaker is and what the poem is about, s/he can begin explicating the poem to see what devices have been used to create meaning, and how those devices did in fact help create meaning. I continually model explication for students throughout the year, and they begin to explicate in the very beginning of the year. Hopefully by the middle of the year, they are proficient at close readings. For samples of student explication and past AP exam questions, a useful website is www.apcentral.collegeboard.com. Once there, click on exams on the right column and scroll down to released exams. You will get an adobe reader’s version of the exam and students’ answers receiving various scores. You can also get an explanation of scores for those essays as well as a rubric for the scoring.
For the teacher who has not explicated in a while, teaching this analysis can be intimidating – I know it was for me. But with practice, any teacher can easily teach this. For example, Mary Jo Salter’s poem, “Unfinished Painting”, from her collection Unfinished Painting 1988, uses religious imagery, the theme of death, and a change in voice to show the speaker’s view of how we are all unfinished and how art can give us an extended life. This is the first poem I’ll do with my students all year. Students seem to understand it easily; yet there’s so much in the poem for them to see. A brief background on the poem:Salter wrote this poem about an actual painting done by her mother, who died young and “unfinished.”
The first thing I tell the students is that when the poem begins with “Dark son, whose face once shone like this,” the son could either be dead or possibly now dark and once innocent as captured in the painting. Salter uses a great deal of alliteration to reinforce the meter, which is sometimes iambic tetrameter. The second stanza separates the unfinished body from the finished head, so the form complements the content. Salter introduces the religious imagery with a simile, comparing the subject to a “choirboy” as well as reinforcing the idea of innocence. The religious imagery is continued into the next stanza with “Rome” and we know the “she” is Salter’s mother. In the fourth stanza the word “made” contains more than one meaning. Made can mean constructed as well as birthed. The mother’s hope for the boy is shown in the religious imagery evoking the pope. Possibly she is also evoking the innocence of the boy with her religious imagery. Salter continues the observation of the painting while trying to convey the significance of the painting and the motivation of the painter. In the fifth stanza Salter parallels the ability of the painting to immortalize the subject and the painter as her poem does for her mother. Salter alludes to the Brothers Grimm, a children’s book – again recalling a time of innocence and simplicity. But we see a change of thought with “wait”, because what Salter is saying is that what draws us to art is how it brings us back to our own lives. She’s reliving a memory. I can also show students how Elizabeth Bishop uses that same moment of revelation in “Poem,” and so does Rachel Hadas in “Homage to Winslow Homer.” Salter’s sixth stanza reinforces the theme of being unfinished, since the painter spends time raising the real boy instead of finishing the painting of the boy. Art is a means to reflect on life, but life remains more important. The painter keeps life in perspective, which is praised as “(no crime)” which starts the seventh stanza. The poet’s use of the words “only” and child” shows that this child represents all children, and when Salter reverses the syntactical order of the words in the second and third line, she uses chiasmus to draw attention to the universality of the child. We are all a work in progress, which they kids understand and appreciate. Further, Salter shows the transformative power of the painting because the painter “altered” her subject. Again the religious imagery returns with the word “alter” by suggesting a pun on the word meaning the alter in a church. Again, this could imply an innocence about the child or she could be praying for the welfare of her child.
Students should recognize that an important shift begins with the eighth stanza, beginning with ellipses. We now know the son is not dead, but the mother is. The focus of death in the first seven stanzas is on the son, transforming the subject into a still being, but in the last four stanzas the focus of death shifts to the mother. We have a transition of one death to another, from a phantom death to a real death. Salter puns on the word “sun,” which could also mean son. The sun is set because the mother is dead and her eyes reclaim him. Salter again plays on the word “praise” with the mother’s admiration and examination, “appraise.” When in the ninth stanza the son finds the painting and picks it up realizing it’s “lighter” than he anticipated, Salter suggests the weight of the painting is in its meaning. It’s heavy in meaning. Again in the tenth stanza we see religious imagery when the mother creates the son in her own image, as Gd creates man in his own image; yet she is living vicariously through her son’s image, because she was too diffident about her skill to go public. Lastly we hear the mother’s voice through the italicized first line and then the boy answers through his portrait, which can speak and show meaning, even though “still” - as in continued and not moving. Salter ends the poem returning to the notion of dark or “shade[d]”. Salter illustrates the notion that life and art intermingle, because like life, art too is unfinished, changing, and growing.
Most of the time, students are amazed at how much is in a poem, especially if they have not done close readings in the past. Students can figure out some of what I explicated for you. I find they actually notice more than they say, because they don’t trust their own thinking and voice. One of the major goals of AP is for students to truly think for themselves and question the text. Together they can explore the answers. I try to give them space to struggle with analysis, rather than continually spoon-feed them the answers, which is sometimes tempting to do.